Growing up in Hitchin, England, Gail Emms didn’t believe an illustrious career could have been made out of a badminton game she played “for fun with mum” in the garden. The 2004 Olympic silver medallist and 2006 world champion spoke to the BBC’s Adrian Chiles on how she became so driven to succeed and why the right sporting mindset matters for players.
“I used to play badminton with my mum and it was nothing more than that,” said Emms in the BBC radio interview.
It was while watching British 400m athletics hurdler Sally Gunnell clinch gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games that Emms told her schoolfriends: “I want to be an Olympian.”
“I knew if I kept going and kept training, I could get there. Every day when it got tough (in training) I kept my focus on a podium finish and winning medals,” Emms added.
At a time when most of her friends were out having fun, Emms was driving herself to succeed.
“I had massive FOMO (fear of missing out), but I had to remind myself: ‘It will be okay’. That feeling of finishing a tournament is addictive. Your personality forms around sports. As you train, it’s the ego that keeps going.”
Emms and mixed doubles partner Nathan Robertson claimed silver at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games after a fierce duel with China’s Zhang Jun and Gao Ling 15-1 12-15 15-12, but instead of coming away with the feeling of a big victory, the silver medallist felt somewhat disappointed.
She said: “I didn’t think of it like I won silver, but it was more – I lost gold. I hated that silver medal position.”
However, the England pair did go on to win a major title – the World Championships in 2006.
“It was a relief. I should have been elated. I just thought ‘job done’, your mindset changes,” Emms continued.
Looking back on her favourite tournament, the Yonex All England, Emms was in awe of Korean mixed doubles pair Kim Dong Moon and Ra Kyung Min.
“They were amazing players. Their style of play was like poetry. I knew I would never play like that. I held the racket wrong, my grip was wrong and there were lots of shots I couldn’t do. I am 5’3 but I am strong around the court and pretty powerful. I would think about what my opponent could do and then what I could do to counter that,” she confessed.
Retirement from badminton
Retiring from badminton professionally after the Beijing 2008 Olympics, Emms periodically suffered from depression and has since spoken publicly about her struggles.
“I lay on the sofa for a week. I wasn’t in denial but I refused to seek help. I was a woman in sport playing against men. I can’t ever show emotion. I have learnt to show more male characteristics. In sports, it’s everything – you put your soul into it. My whole identity was ripped out (after retiring), and it was hard to get myself back.”
Emms has since turned her attention to sharing the hugely positive impact that sport can have on life and well-being, working as a Youth Sports Trust and Badminton Sports England Ambassador, inspiring young people to be more active and lead a healthy lifestyle.